Having scored with its first Broadway venture, New Line doesn't stray far from the "Hairspray" formula with its second stage outing, "The Wedding Singer." Substitute the high-tack 1980s for the swinging '60s, copycat the candy-colored design and peppy score and, presto, another instant crowd-pleaser.. But no matter how slickly realized it is, imitation comes with limitations.
Having scored with its first Broadway venture, New Line doesn’t stray far from the “Hairspray” formula with its second stage outing, “The Wedding Singer.” Substitute the high-tack 1980s for the swinging ’60s, swap Ridgefield, N.J., for Baltimore, copycat the candy-colored design and peppy score and, presto, another instant crowd-pleaser is born. But no matter how slickly realized it is, imitation comes with limitations. Like a knockoff Prada bag picked up on Canal Street, this looks at first glance like the real thing, but closer inspection reveals the imperfections.
Not that its synthetic quality proves fatal to “The Wedding Singer,” by any means. Forced as it is, this is a fizzy confection offering enough easy enjoyment to attract the outer boroughs and the tourist trade.
It’s also derivative by design, to some extent making a virtue of its inherent phoniness via winking acknowledgement. Where the 1998 film ended with a scene featuring ’80s icon Billy Idol, the stage adaptation corrals not only an Idol impersonator but a fake Tina Turner, Imelda Marcos, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T and Ronald Reagan. Retro overkill is a distinct risk here, but one mainstream auds are unlikely to mind.
The pic was released ahead of the wave of 1980s nostalgia, but VH1 and other outlets have since locked pop culture into permanent recycle mode.
The musical’s chief means of getting laughs is its tireless resurrection of cheesy ’80s fashion trends and pop staples — lace bustiers and fingerless gloves, parachute pants, aerobics, moonwalking, Flock of Seagulls-style sculpted mullets, fringed boots, big-haired metal skanks.
Scott Pask’s sets, Gregory Gale’s costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and David Brian Brown’s grotesque hair designs all work overtime to re-create and caricature the decade’s most vulgar excesses.
But unlike “Hairspray,” in which the quirky period evocation was a backdrop for fully developed comic situations and characters with real heart, “Wedding” has too little going on beneath the time-warp gags. It’s also hampered by a central imbalance in its cast.
What made the movie such a silly, sweet-souled affair was the nerdy guilelessness of stars Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. As title character Robbie Hart, a New Jersey wedding performer left at the altar, comedian Stephen Lynch is an appealing recruit for musical theater. Even if he doesn’t have Sandler’s vulnerability in the role, he handles both singing and acting duties with breezy confidence.
As cater-waitress Julia Sullivan, engaged to a philandering Wall Street yuppie but increasingly drawn to wounded Robbie, Laura Benanti is a less satisfying fit. As she showed in “Nine” and “Into the Woods,” Benanti’s vocals have a lovely, relaxed quality. But she’s somewhat sober and charm-deficient here; she lacks Barrymore’s golden glow, the open-hearted tenderness that made the character so irresistible. She’s also saddled with a harsh wig that makes her look like everyone’s big sister.
The chemistry between Lynch and Benanti never quite clicks. To a degree, they are also out of alignment with the more cartoonish characters surrounding and constantly upstaging them. The leads seem vanilla by comparison.
Director John Rando, who showed his affinity for non-naturalistic performance style in “Urinetown,” has a better handle on the supporting ranks. The terrific Amy Spanger goes beyond her early-Madonna look to shape a winning character out of Julia’s amiably slutty cousin Holly, reluctant to admit the lunkhead in front of her might be Mr. Right. Likewise Matthew Saldivar as her fashion-victim soulmate, Sammy. It’s a telling miscalculation that we care more about Holly and Sammy getting together than about Robbie and Julia.
As George, the gay keyboard player in Robbie’s band Simply Wed, Kevin Cahoon is given too little to do. As is often the case with this show, book writers Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy (latter scripted the movie) rely on pop-culture references to do the work, thinking it’s funny enough to stick Cahoon out there in his Boy George hairdo or his Adam Ant post-punk military regalia. To Cahoon’s credit, he registers as an idiosyncratic comic presence, amusingly paired with Rita Gardner as the inevitable rapping granny in “Move That Thang.”
Richard H. Blake shows off some nimble dance moves in lively second-act opener “All About the Green,” the gray business suits offering a break from the loud color elsewhere. The song also is one of the few moments in which the writers glance past the fads into the broader fabric of the greed-driven 1980s.
Standout of the supporting cast is Felicia Finley, who embodies the scariest manifestations of ’80s femininity in two riotous numbers as Robbie’s fickle fiancee, Linda. Outfitted like Lita Ford and backed by wind effects straight out of a Jim Steinman video, Finley delivers a headbanging breakup missive in “A Note From Linda” and executes some dangerous-looking sexual acrobatics in “Let Me Come Home.”
While the show’s first half perhaps has one relentlessly upbeat number too many, the songs are a tuneful mix of dance beats and gentle ballads, the most effective of these being Robbie and Julia’s “If I Told You.” Composer Matthew Sklar and orchestrator Irwin Fisch have dipped liberally into the sounds of the era, borrowing riffs from Van Halen, Wham and Spandau Ballet, among others, while Rob Ashford’s bouncy choreography references signature moves from “Thriller,” “Flashdance” and “Material Girl.”
The best song is the effusive opening (and closing) number, “It’s Your Wedding Day.” Had the show sustained that initial high note, focusing more on the romantic comedy and less on the “I Love the ’80s” pop-culture collage, it might have been a more rounded entertainment.